The Best Congress Money Can Buy?

Apparently, the last minute legislation that the Congress approved contains a few special interest goodies, mainly for the financial industry, including one that defers any income earned overseas from corporate taxation so long as the money remains outside the USA and one that benefits Goldman Sachs especially. So, at a time when everyone’s Social Security payroll tax deductions go up two percent, a good $1000 a year for the average family, financial America gets a continued tax break.

Not that this surprises me in the least, because we have the very best Congress money can buy, and we have it because the reformers of the past century were successful. It’s an excellent example of how the best intentions can have the worst results, a real-life political example of the road to Hell being paved with good intentions. It’s also an example of what can happen when good ideas are carried to extremes.

Many years ago, when I was a young and more idealistic Congressional staffer, political parties really mattered. They were more than affiliation labels, which is what they’ve largely become today; they were a source of political power. They were significant funding sources, especially compared to today, and there weren’t that many other organizations, except perhaps unions, that had that kind of influence over members of Congress, although technically both unions and corporations were prohibited from direct and indirect contributions to candidates.

Because enforcing these prohibitions and other campaign laws was difficult, in 1971, Congress passed the Federal Election Campaign Act, requiring stringent disclosure requirements. Then following Watergate and reports of serious financial abuses in the 1972 Presidential campaign, Congress amended FECA in 1974 and set limits on contributions by individuals, political parties and PACs. One of the more important provisions was that which limited national party contributions to $5,000 per election to candidates for the House of Representatives and $43,000 to Senatorial candidates.

With the reduction in funds from national and local political parties and the prohibition and increasing scrutiny of moneys that had formerly still passed under the table, and with the aid of the development of computerization, most candidates and federal elected officials began to build independent fundraising and electoral support organizations, and, in effect, corporations turned a blind eye to scores of their executives contributing, technically in a legal fashion, to campaigns of those who favored corporate interests.

Then in 2010, two court decisions, Citizens United and SpeechNow, changed everything. Together, the two decisions, essentially on free speech grounds, removed the limits on the ability of organizations that accepted corporate or union money from running electioneering communications and held that Congress could not limit donations to organizations that only made independent expenditures, that is, expenditures that were “uncoordinated” with a candidate’s campaign. As a result, anyone could spend any amount of money on advertising for or against any political issue and against any candidate, or for any candidate, provided there was no communication or coordination with the candidate. Add to that the fact that, of “regular” contributions to candidates, roughly 50% of campaign contributions come from large individual donors, and it’s difficult not to see why the financial community has a disproportionate influence on legislation… and gets special tax breaks.

What’s overlooked, however, with all the money issues, is a second issue – that of carrying good ideas to extremes. The Citizens United and SpeechNow decisions essentially rested on the premise that restricting expression of opinion through restricting campaign-related advertising was unconstitutional because it restricted free speech under the First Amendment. No one wants free speech restricted, but what about the problem of my free speech – or yours – being drowned out by hundreds of millions of dollars of corporate paid advertising? Isn’t that a de facto restriction of free speech?

The same issue is raised by the question of restriction of assault weapons. Does the right to bear arms under the Second Amendment allow others to cut short my pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness – or that of innocent school children?

As we are seeing – and some seem to refuse to see – carrying principles to extremes can have unintended, and dangerous, consequences. But then, that’s true of carrying anything to extremes, a fact of which tea party members and ultra-leftists remain blissfully unaware.

8 thoughts on “The Best Congress Money Can Buy?”

  1. Jack says:

    This is in response to your last. Stay away from Windows 8. This is an upgrade that could have baked a while longer. 7 is definitely better. No smart phone icons on the laptop, thank you.

  2. Gordon Long says:

    I really think that the GDP should be devided fairly. The movers could not move without the doers and when either party gets out of kilter things go bad. When the rich own everything the economy stops and when the rich are over taxed they have their ways. My problem and I think it is pretty universal is that there are a lot of losers. They contain the slackers and the irreversible types that are not trainable or changeable. We have to pressure those that can produce but we do need to have some consensus as to what to do with the truly incompetent. Hitler and Stalin could handle this but that is why we condemn them. The far right would let them die in the street and the far left would treat them like misunderstood heroes. A fair solution eludes me but I would hopefully recognize it if it came along. Right now the rich really need to be reigned in but that goes for the very poor.

  3. Alan says:

    It seems to be a majority belief that Senate and Congress are over paid, 66% of Americans as it turns out. That is based on a poll by Public Policy Polling. The same study also stated that only 8% of Americans believe that these same federal employees should make more than 150k/year. So if the majority of people believe that Congress is over paid (Especially considering the lifetime paycheck and benefits received after one complete term)why do we still have a Congress which can manage to vote themselves a pay raise during a financial crisis, and continue to promote the very fiscal system which had such great difficulties in recent years.

    I believe that it’s a combination of factors. From my arm chair view of the matter, most people are unwilling to step up to deal with matters. They’d prefer some one else to do so. Those that would like to lack the support and money to be successful. It’s a big complicated system and no small task to face.

    The final factor, I would submit, is that people are so bound and determined that their view is the right one(far left or far right) that there is not enough support for the more logical and likely more correct answer of the middle. Without that support, the challenger cannot win. So each side pushes their own agenda so hard to the exclusion of all else that we, the little people, end up loosing.

    As a side note on guns, like many things, it has been amply proven that taking away one form of weapon does not reduce crime. Australia proved it when they banned all semi-automatic guns, as did England. Disarming the law abiding populace, or restricting their weapons access does little to restrict the access of the criminal element to these same weapons. With the world economy and access to other countries, the guns still move into the country. More over, the violence rate only increases when a criminal knows that the home owner, business man, or whomever he is attacking/robbing has less fire power then the criminal.

    Just some quick statistics about guns, then I’m off the soap box with the last thought.

    Roughly 16,272 murders were committed in the United States during 2008. Of these, about 10,886 or 67% were committed with firearms.

    * A 1993 nationwide survey of 4,977 households found that over the previous five years, at least 0.5% of households had members who had used a gun for defense during a situation in which they thought someone “almost certainly would have been killed” if they “had not used a gun for protection.” Applied to the U.S. population, this amounts to 162,000 such incidents per year. This figure excludes all “military service, police work, or work as a security guard.”

    * Based on survey data from the U.S. Department of Justice, roughly 5,340,000 violent crimes were committed in the United States during 2008. These include simple/aggravated assaults, robberies, sexual assaults, rapes, and murders. Of these, about 436,000 or 8% were committed by offenders visibly armed with a gun.

    * Based on survey data from a 2000 study published in the Journal of Quantitative Criminology, U.S. civilians use guns to defend themselves and others from crime at least 989,883 times per year.

    * A 1993 nationwide survey of 4,977 households found that over the previous five years, at least 3.5% of households had members who had used a gun “for self-protection or for the protection of property at home, work, or elsewhere.” Applied to the U.S. population, this amounts to 1,029,615 such incidents per year. This figure excludes all “military service, police work, or work as a security guard.”

    * A 1994 survey conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that Americans use guns to frighten away intruders who are breaking into their homes about 498,000 times per year.

    * A 1982 survey of male felons in 11 state prisons dispersed across the U.S. found:

    • 34% had been “scared off, shot at, wounded, or captured by an armed victim”

    • 40% had decided not to commit a crime because they “knew or believed that the victim was carrying a gun”

    • 69% personally knew other criminals who had been “scared off, shot at, wounded, or captured by an armed victim”

    Final thought: The trite statement ‘Guns don’t kill people, people kill people’ is self evident and obviously true. Yes, if there were no guns or less access to high capacity weapons fewer people might be killed by people with guns. But the crazy, criminal and deranged don’t need reasons to kill. they’ll find a knife, a brick or their fists to injury you with. People hurt each other, taking away my access to a weapon does nothing for me, and helps the criminal element.

  4. Joe says:

    I disagree with Alan’s side note about guns.

    If someone comes at me with a knife I have some chance of disarming him because he’s within reach. If someone comes at me with a gun I have no chance of disarming him because he’s far away. Therefore the expected number of people killed by knife wielding people is lower. This is borne out by the figures in the UK, and other countries with low access to guns.

    People are not consistently sane. They may be sane when they get a weapon, but lose it when their wife leaves them, or lose it when given the right combination of prescription drugs. An insane family member may get access to their gun. More guns around increases the probability that if someone has a moment of insanity he ends up killing people. Just consider the statistics for suicide. In the US suicide is the 10th leading cause of mortality. It’s not in the top 20 in the UK. That’s not because British people don’t try, it’s just that guns are 100% effective. Since suicide is not considered a crime, its reduction is not counted in crime statistics.

    While it may make sense to have a “well armed militia” to defend yourself against the excesses of government when all the government has is another militia, it seems to me that the second amendment has been overcome by reality when the government has the most powerful military on the planet.

    I find statistics saying “I used a gun because I think I would be dead otherwise” untrustworthy. Science shows that most people use their rational minds to justify whatever conclusion their emotions came up with. Of course you’d run and get your gun if you’re frightened, but it does not mean you need to.

  5. But you really don’t need an automatic/semi-automatic assault rifle, with a quick-change 30-100 bullet magazine, to stop a home intruder or a personal assault. And if you do, you shouldn’t be handling a gun anyway.

  6. Alan says:

    @ Josh: That article pretty much sums up my feelings on the subject of gun control. I am one of the gun nuts, admittedly. I am also a member of the military. I practice on duty and off duty, I have a carry/conceal permit for multiple states. I believe it is my right to own a personal weapon and that I should be allowed to do so.

    @ LEM: The article touches on it, but most people don’t understand/know what an assault rifle is, nor a semi-automatic weapon. The vast majority of guns in the world are semi-automatic. Pull the trigger, one bullet fires. No manual reloading required. The days of bolt action guns are past. Police and military use semi-automatic guns for personal protection and close quarters situations because they are convenient, easy to manipulate and best suited for interior situations.

    No, I do not need a 100 round magazine, true. Do I have some, of course. I am a gun nut, after all. However, my having a magazine which will hold only ten rounds simply means I carry more clips when I go to the range. It means that at home not only is there a loaded gun with a round in the chamber, but two spare magazines in the drawer near the gun.

    As a gun supporter and avid gun enthusiast I will take the stance that I should have available to me appropriate weapons to protect myself, my family and deter others from doing me harm. Up to and including the government. Does that mean I should have a Sherman tank, a bazooka and a 20 caliber Gatling gun? No, let’s not be absurd. But it does not mean I should not have the right to small arms of many sorts and sizes.

    Your average criminal, has easy access to weapons purchased illegally. This is, in fact, where most criminals (on the order of 80% or more) get their weapons. Your average law abiding civilian can acquire guns legally (With the associated paperwork) and is considerably less likely to be/become either a criminal or victim. Additionally, your ‘assault’ rifle is far less likely to be used in crime. In 2010, there were ~6,000 hand gun related deaths, including suicides. There were only ~360 rifle related ones. Criminals don’t want rifles any more than the average home-owner with a gun for protection. For the same reasons.

    As I remarked previously, the article covers most of my feelings clearly. But the key points are as follows:

    1. Many crimes are stopped by armed or potentially armed victims. They are not easy bait, there for the criminals go elsewhere. More crimes are stopped by people being armed then are caused by people being armed. A statistic that even the most anti-gun individual cannot deny, given that the numbers come from their own survey companies.

    2. Minimizing the number of rounds in a magazine, or the availability of high capacity magazines does not reduce the ability of a moderately proficient shooter from hosing down an area. Say a mall food court. I can fire off all 10 rounds in the gun, eject the magazine and reload within fifteen seconds. Presume to say a shooter who takes his time, aims, and takes longer to reload comes up. Give him thirty seconds to pull the trigger ten times. He can still reload and be pulling the trigger again in short order. All magazines are designed to fall free of the magazine well from just their own weight when the release is depressed. All we’ve done by reducing the magazine size is give more time for chaos to reign, masking the shooter from security forces while he reloads and opens fire yet again.

    3. Limiting the access to semi-automatic weapons is both impractical and foolish. There is no practical way to remove these guns from circulation. More over, the conversion of a manual bolt action to semi-automatic or automatic firing can be done at home. With a kit bought over the internet. A legal kit, as a matter of fact.

    @ Joe: Australia and England’s actions where guns are concerned are well documented, as are the results. Criminal behavior has gone up in both, and the number of violent crimes which occur with guns did not in fact go down, despite disarming the law abiding citizens. In the UK it [gun crimes] went up by ~50%. With an increase in violent crime over the last decade of nearly %90, despite disarming the law abiding populace. I cannot see how you can have an improvement in the system, when crime rates increased, and violent crimes committed using guns did not go down after taking away the legal weapons.

    The notoriously violent city of Washington D.C. saw its murder rate fall below triple digits for the first time since 1963 and just four years after the Supreme Court overturned the city’s handgun ban in District of Columbia v. Heller.

    On the suicide portion, success rates are actually much lower than 100%. Depending on where the person shoots themselves, they are as low as 50% (stomach shots), and as high as ~90% (head shots). Recoil of the gun, shooters lack of knowledge and other factors prevent death by gun from being as effective. Suicide attempts by gun are farm more common. Some studies actually claim that more than half of gun suicide attempts end up waking up in the hospital. About half of all suicides are by gun. ~38,000 suicides a year in the US, ~18,000 of them by gun.

    About 2/3rds of all murders are committed with a gun, yet that other 1/3rd still managed to occur. If someone wants you dead, they’ll find a way. Gun or no. Just as some one who wishes to commit suicide, once you pair away the cries for help, will find a way.

  7. Joe says:

    @Alan: The main cause of crime decreasing in the US seems to have been the phasing out of leaded gasoline. Lead impairs brain function as has been known since the time of the Romans. In particular lead results in poor impulse control and impaired judgement:
    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/crime/9790009/Was-lead-pollution-behind-the-baby-boomer-crime-wave.html

    Crime, including murder and homicide, has fallen in the UK, not risen as you suggest:
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/datablog/2011/jul/14/crime-statistics-england-wales

    You seem to consider a 50% suicide success rate low. I would suggest it’s pretty high given that 140,000 people attempt suicide each year in the UK and Ireland, but only 4% “succeed”:
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/health/emotional_health/mental_health/mind_suicide.shtml

    http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=13497&page=2 is a study of US health. Homicides and traffic accidents each kill more children in the US than in any other developed country.

    I also question why it is impossible to limit the number of guns in circulation. For instance in France hunting is a right protected since the revolution, but it is difficult to buy anything other than a hunting rifle that can be loaded with 2 bullets. The supply of guns would dwindle dramatically if we made them illegal, arrested anyone carrying one, selling one or buying one. Of course there will still be some guns, just as slavery still exists, but many fewer. I’m suggesting this somewhat tongue in cheek, but it might give some of those DEA people something to do if other states follow Colorado and Washington State’s lead in legalizing Marijuana.

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